What reputation does your church have?

Could it be that, in your desire to help and heal the sick and suffering in your community, your church has become a temple of pseudoscience, a dispensary of snake oil remedies and concepts?

Fred Hardinge, DrPH, RD, is associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans fall prey to some of the silliest, most preposter­ous stories on health every day. There are those who proclaim that eating whole lemons prevents all cancers. Others teach that bathing every day in expensive Himalayan salt will eliminate harmful body toxins.

The Internet has become a prime source of this kind of nonsense. Even Facebook has the ability to take unso­phisticated readers from harmless dietary nonsense to medical quackery. Every week people email me queries about this remedy or that fanciful claim. Sadly, most are hoping for a shortcut to better health.

Even your local health food store is often a rich repository of pseudosci­entific information, offering products with plenty of Latin words mixed with phrases such as “builds better blood” or “made in the kitchen—not in the lab” and teas claiming to cure whatever ails you. The magazines and books are generally not much better, with titles like The Coconut Miracle, What Doctors Don’t Tell You, or Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. Pseudoscience can cause us to loosen our grip on the anchor of evidence-based science, resulting in a dangerous drift toward antiscience and all manner of conspiracy theories.

But what does this all have to do with your church? Unfortunately, a lot in some cases. Recently, someone wrote me ask­ing if vitamin C would cure pneumonia. Another wanted to know whether they could boost their brain function by eating spirulina. Both had heard these question­able claims at their local church!

As the pastor, you no doubt recog­nize your role as a guardian of the faith. Frequently, you answer questions or preach sermons in defense of your beliefs and understanding of Bible truth. You do this more frequently than you wish because there are plenty of people who espouse pseudotheological tenets and spiritual conspiracy theories. No doubt you often find yourself explaining why a particular interpretation of Scripture misrepresents the Word of God.

Could it be that, in your desire to help and heal the sick and suffering in your community, your church has become a temple of pseudoscience, a dispensary of snake oil remedies and concepts? Some may say it makes little difference and believe that if people appear to be helped, then snake oil remedies are OK and this improves your standing in the community.

As a nutritionist, I have discovered over the years that often in my audience there is someone who knows more about a narrow slice of nutritional science than I do. Thus, I find it vitally important for me to make sure I am speaking from evidence-based science. Otherwise, I put the reputation of my church and my very mission in grave jeopardy.

Ellen White wrote, “If they see that we are intelligent with regard to health, they will be more ready to believe that we are sound in Bible doctrines.”1

When we allow our churches to be platforms for extremism, fads, and pseudoscience, we make our work and mission much more difficult. Once the doors have been opened to scientific nonsense, even the wisest and most intelligent presenters of comprehensive health ministry may find it impossible to place this important subject on a right basis in the community. White also wrote, “The door is also closed in a great measure, so that unbelievers cannot be reached by the present truth upon the Sabbath and the soon coming of our Saviour. The most precious truths are  cast aside by the people as unworthy of a hearing.”2

You may be wondering, as a non­scientist, how you can sort the chaff from the wheat so that you do not fall prey to the smooth-talking charlatans. Many of you are blessed to have highly trained, professional scientists in your congregations. Seek their advice, and listen carefully to their counsel. I have found the following seven practical warning signs of bogus science to be extremely useful:3

  1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media—short-circuiting the scientific process of peer review.
  2. The discoverer says that a powerful segment of the establishment is try­ing to suppress their work to protect wealth and power.
  3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
  4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal and based on personal testimonies.
  5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
  6. The discoverer has worked in isolation to make a revolutionary breakthrough.
  7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

In a world filled with scientific non­sense, is it too much for you as a pastor to develop the skill of spotting bogus sci­ence? Your ministry and mission depend on it.

References:

1 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Health (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1957), 452.

2 White, Counsels on Diet and Foods (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1976), 209.

3 Robert L. Park, “Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science,” Chronicle Review, Jan. 31, 2003.


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Fred Hardinge, DrPH, RD, is associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

July 2014

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